Beijing in bloom


Emperors once lorded over it and now designers are doing the same. With hip hotels and homes sprouting up, and the likes of Rem Koolhaas and Paul Andreu vamping up the skyline, Beijing is a blossoming kingdom for design breakthroughs.

This is a great leap forward from the grey-suited, Communist world of the late 1970s. During the three decades that China was shut off from the rest of the world, designers went wild from Modernism to Postmodernism, finally settling down to Minimalism.

‘Chaos emerged,’ wrote SY Zheng in an essay called Contemporary China’s Interior Design after 1978’s liberalisation. Designers had barely grasped Modernism when Postmodernism came hurtling in. Forced up a steep learning curve, they created a mish-mash of styles, almost as if in a cruel parallel to Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers campaign. (During the 1956 campaign – whose slogan was ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend’ – the Chinese Communist Party encouraged people to give their opinions and solutions to problems.) A skyscraper topped with a pagoda roof is a regular sight.

By the 1990s, Yue Mingjun, Fang Linjun and the Luo Brothers burst forth with garish-coloured sculptures and Maoist graphic icons, taking pot shots at politics and society in the Cynical Realism and Political Pop movements. Designers, such as Li Hu and Chang Yungho, returned from studies or work in the US to join their counterparts, such as Ai Weiwei, in shaking up the scene.

‘China has been gradually getting its confidence back after the fast development of its economy,’ says Hank Chao, who heads award-winning Shanghai group MoHen Design. He believes that Chinese designers are learning to value their past, but says that they still do not know how to best use traditional design elements. ‘They first learnt more from adjacent countries such as Japan, or from other Chinese provinces like Hong Kong. These places Westernised much earlier, and have learnt how to mix their own design language from the past with contemporary elements,’ he says.

One ‘returnee’, Zhu Pei, gave artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s 200-year-old house in the heart of Beijing a Minimalist treatment, with traditional Chinese furnishings, light wood and glass panelling to add a subtle touch of modernity, while retaining rugged brick walls. Musician, tea-master and artist JinR – multi-hyphenated talents are common in the large city of big dreams – is renowned for her signature über-chic, yoke-back chairs, latticed doors and folding screens, which are reinterpretations of the Ming- and Qing-era furniture that dominate Beijing’s traditional homes, and are inspired by the Chinese philosophy of Tao or ‘the way’.

Beijing design would have a strong Chinese touch, says Hong Kong designer Kinney Chan, marking the difference emerging from it and Shanghai. Chan noted it is usually larger in scale and developed from an architectural way of thinking, whereas Shanghai designs are more ‘boutique’ and smaller in scale. Hong Kong designs are more conservative and commercial.

Douglas Young, founder of Hong Kong label Goods of Desire, finds that even the Chinese consumers are different. ‘Don’t be surprised to find that many mainland Chinese customers are more “with it” than local Hong Kong people,’ cautions Young. ‘They are often more open to new ideas than customers from “established” communities. Mainlanders appreciate our sense of humour, expressed through cultural irony.’ Young is known for his irreverent home accessories using Chinese text, images of Hong Kong and graphics from Maoist propaganda materials. ‘Chinese people want a complete change in their lifestyle. They want something that nobody else (including the Italians) have had before.’

Life for designers has not always been so rosy. Just ten years ago, according to Chan, Beijing developers used Hong Kong designers from foreign-based companies. Imported furnishings were in fashion, as local products were inferior in quality, and, due to political issues, ‘there were many restrictions in the [local] design style’. But improvements in China’s manufacturing capabilities – which is why it became the ‘factory of the world’ – has reversed the trend, so that local materials and foreign designs are now preferred.

The burgeoning purchasing power of the Chinese market and the draw of the Middle Kingdom is not lost on foreign companies. With the country’s retail sales expected to quintuple in the next decade to 30 trillion RMB (£2.15 trillion), international brands are fighting to get a piece of the pie. Brands such as Cappellini, Poltrona Frau and Hansgrohe made themselves household names in Beijing, while Philippe Starck created the LAN restaurant-club-bar, a pastiche of Mongolian tents, powder rooms, rhino heads, ornate mirrors, leather seats and plastic chandeliers. Atlanta-based interior design consultancy HBA has also been stamping its mark all over the 3000-year-old city, with not less than 13 projects, including the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott. Multi-entertainment venue Legation Quarter, whose proprietary venues ‘don’t have any Chinese-inspired interior design’, will open near the Forbidden City this year. The 10 220m2 area will include an outpost of the London nightclub Boujis, a Daniel Boulud restaurant and a Patek Philippe store. Near the Great Wall – the only man-made structure visible from space – is Jackson Hole, which looks like a set from a Western movie.

However, elsewhere there are stalwarts of tradition such as Red Capital Club and Hotel Côté Cour that take up Beijing’s famous enclosed atrium houses or siheyuan (courtyard dwellings). The US-owned Red Capital Club ‘once belonged to a notorious female spy and Manchurian revivalist who plied her trade using all assets at her disposal’. Stolen away in a hutong near the courtyard homes of many of China’s past and present leaders, it took one year for traditional craftsmen to restore. The cigar lounge is outfitted with Marshal Lin Biao’s (Mao’s ill-fated successor) chairs and the dining room decked with imperial robes and calligraphy paintings. Hotel Côté Cour, meanwhile, is a sanctuary of Venetian plaster, glass mosaic tiles and Chinese antiques, set around a lily pond and a century-old date tree.

‘Beijing has grey courtyard dwellings and the red-brick walls and glass tiles of the Imperial Palace. Various design styles live here together harmoniously,’ muses Meng En, chief executive officer of the DCB group, a non-profit-making, on-line organisation for designers. ‘It can be counted as a signature style of China. Such a unique characteristic will continue to exist, especially after
China has truly connected with the world through the Olympics. Through  the collision of Chinese and Western cultures, more and better works will  be produced.’

CHINA IN YOUR HANDS – Who’s who in Beijing’s design world

Fake Design
This is run by Ai Weiwei, who started Caochangdi, now the alternative to 798 for creative professionals. Ai is a conceptual artist, curator and architect who designed Where to Go? Restaurant and worked with Herzog & de Meuron on the Beijing National Stadium.

Headed by Ma Yansong, from Beijing, the architecture design studio is working on several big schemes including the Ordos project in Inner Mongolia. Ma was with Zaha Hadid Architects in London and Eisenman Architects in New York before founding MAD in 2004. Ma’s list of achievements include the 2002 Samuel J Fogelson Memorial Award of Design Excellence, as well as the American Institute of Architects Scholarship for Advanced Architecture Research in 2001.

MADA s.p.a.m
The Shanghai-based architecture and design practice has offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Los Angeles, and is working with OMA on the CCTV headquarters in Beijing. The founder Ma Qingyun, also the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California, is the chief curator of the 2007 Shenzhen-Hong Kong, Bi-City Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism: The City of Expiration and Regeneration.

Studio Pei-Zhu
Trained at Berkeley, Zhu Pei is one of China’s ‘starchitects’. His signature look combines Chinese motifs with startling futuristic imagery using digital media, while the Beijing-based studio is building the microchip-lookalike Digital Beijing, which will be the digital command centre for the Olympics. Its Art Museum of Yue Minjun will launch in October.

STYLE OLYMPICS – Between cheering the synchronised swimmers at the Beijing National Aquatics Centre and feasting on exotic food at Wangfujing, these new hotspots are well worth a visit

The Emperor
‘Sound caves’ or carved-out areas of this hotel’s hallways are outfitted with suede and feature flat screens describing Beijing’s history and culture. Day beds in one section of the SHI restaurant are separated by translucent curtains, which, when aligned, form the Chinese character for the word ‘eat’. The Emperor is the only Chinese member of Design Hotels and will be launched this year.

Legation Quarter
Lawyer Handel Lee, who spearheaded Shanghai’s Three on the Bund venture, has shifted his attention to Beijing. Retaining its name from the Qing dynasty, when it was used as the American embassy, Legation Quarter will include a nightclub for Beijing’s jet set.

Green T House Living
JinR’s lifestyle retreat based on her Green T brand draws on the traditions of the tea house as a social gathering place. It will add accommodation this year and host exhibitions and other events.

Hotel Kapok
In what locals call the ‘first design hotel’, special frosted Fibreglass was created and used for the latticed building facade. The modular chaise lounges and print wallpaper speak of a contemporary European influence, yet the courtyard with bamboo plants, curiously, still evokes sword-fighting scenes.

Commune by the Great Wall
This daring project is the brainchild of 12 renowned Asian architects such as Shigeru Ban, Seung H-Sang and Chang Yung Ho. It features furnishings from Serge Mouille, Karim Rashid and Marc Newson, even though the brief was to use local materials and traditional building methods.

Why go to Ko Samui for a Thai massage when you can get one in a siheyuan? The stylised silhouettes of chairs, opium beds and cabinets are tempered with material such as naturally aged, hundred-year-old timber and bright accessories.

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